Toledo Walleye forward Kyle Bonis has 10 goals, including this one vs. Colorado, and 8 assists in the playoffs. He and the rest of the Walleye will try to even the ECHL Western Conference final tonight in Colorado. BLADE PHOTO
LOVELAND, Colo. — The Walleye look to follow a familiar strategy as they attempt to tie the Western Conference final today.
Toledo must get more shots on goal, play better defense, manage the puck, and put together a 60-minute effort to even the best-of-7 series.
The Walleye sent just 12 shots on goal and suffered several defensive breakdowns in a 4-3 overtime loss to Colorado in Game 3 at Budweiser Events Center on Wednesday night. The Eagles lead the series 2-1.
Walleye coach Dan Watson said his team gets into the habit of making an extra pass or attempting to make the fancy play instead of getting shots on goal.
“Obviously that’s not up to our standards. It’s not good enough,” Watson said. “It’s amazing we had  shots on goal and had an opportunity to win. We have to find ways to generate more shots.”
Toledo set a season low in shots on goal. The Walleye entered the game averaging 29.4 shots per game in the Kelly Cup playoffs and had averaged 32.17 during the regular season.
Colorado coach Aaron Schneekloth said his team avoided committing turnovers in its own end and played tight defense.
“We had a real strong game,” Schneekloth said. “Managing the puck is so important against this team because if you give them opportunities, you will pay the price, and we still did [on Wednesday]. We have to make them work for their opportunities.”
The Walleye had just three shots in each of the first two periods. Toledo’s lowest shot total had been 18 on April 2 against Fort Wayne. Yet the Walleye still managed to push Colorado to overtime. Game 4 is set for 9:05 p.m. today.
“We need to get pucks to the net, and more people to the net, and create havoc,” said defenseman Matt Caito, who had a goal and an assist.
At the other end, the Eagles scored all four goals on deflections or with a strong presence in front of Walleye goalie Jeff Lerg, who made 27 saves.
Toledo and Colorado have both had lapses during the series. Both coaches said they are looking for better puck management and consistent effort every shift.
Toledo took a 1-0 lead in the series with a 4-2 win last Friday at the Huntington Center. But Colorado has responded with back-to-back 4-3 wins.
“It’s a new slate,” Watson said. “We won the first game at home, and they’ve won their first game in their building. We would like to do what they did to us in Game 2. We need to get the series to 2-2 and go from there. But it’s going to come down to determination and will. Our guys need to be ready to go.”
In the playoffs, Toledo has scored 3.40 goals per game and Colorado is averaging 3.42 per contest.
Evan Rankin, who has eight goals and six assists in 15 playoff games, said a tight series was expected.
“It came down to one goal at the end of the game, and they got a good bounce,” Rankin said. “We felt like we were going to get one at the end, but they got the break at the end of the game. That’s why it’s a seven-game series.”
Colorado forward Alex Belzile remained red hot with a goal and an assist in the win on Wednesday. Belzile leads all playoff scorers with 13 goals and 23 points in 12 games.
Toledo forward Kyle Bonis, who scored a goal on Wednesday, ranks second in the postseason with 18 points (10 goals, 8 assists) in 15 games.
In goal, Lerg is 6-3-1 in the playoffs with a 2.55 goals-against average. Colorado has started Toledo native Lukas Hafner in two of the three games, and he has won both. The Central Catholic graduate is 9-2 with a 2.64 goals-against average.
Walleye players and coaches believe they have not tested Hafner enough.
“It seemed like we had a ton of chances, but they weren’t hitting the net,” Rankin said.
Rankin’s line with brothers Tyson and Tylor Spink dominated play at times Wednesday. Tyson Spink leads all rookies with 16 points (6 goals, 10 assists) in 15 games. Tylor Spink ranks third among rookies with 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in 14 games.
Meanwhile, Schneekloth said the plan was to get traffic in front of Lerg.
“At this time of year, you have to get in the dirty areas to create opportunities and give yourself a chance,” Schneekloth said. “That is a big demand for our team, to find a way to get net presence.”
Lerg has played in 10 of the team’s 15 playoff games. Fellow goalie Jake Paterson, who was the No. 1 starter during the regular season, played in the first seven games before being injured on April 25. Paterson (3-2 with a 3.41 goals-against average), who led the league in wins with 34 in the regular season, has recovered and could see time this weekend.
Caito, who has come on strong in the conference finals, has one goal and five assists in the postseason.
“We turn the page,” Caito said. “It’s playoff hockey. Games are so tight now. We’ll be ready.”
Rankin said the team has always shown resiliency.
“It’s a long series, and it’s something we have to have a short-term memory on and get ready for Friday,” Rankin said. “We knew coming here we’d need to win some games, so Game 4 will be huge for us.”
FISH TALES: A winter storm warning was in effect in northeast Colorado on Thursday. The afternoon temperature was 32 degrees with heavy snow. Accumulations of 2 to 6 inches were expected in Loveland with up to a foot near the foothills of the Rockies.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.
Walleye vs. Colorado
Game 1: Walleye 4, Colorado 2
Game 2: Colorado 4, Walleye 3
Game 3: Colorado 4, Walleye 3, OT (Colorado leads series 2-1)
Game 4: Today, 9:05 p.m., at Colorado
Game 5: Saturday, 9:05 p.m., at Colorado
Game 6: Monday, 7:35 p.m., at Toledo*
Game 7: Wednesday, 7:35 p.m., at Toledo*
* if necessary
All games on BCSN and 1230 AM